Friday, November 19, 2004

Sigmund Freud Theoretical position on forgetfulness and comments on GN Devy’s view on that theory to interpret Indian culture

Replied Lord supreme," Many births of mine have passed away, so were yours. I am aware of all those births, but O Parantapa, you are not aware of them.
Gita: 4:5
“To err is human; to forgive is divine” the age-old adage when looked at form the standpoint of the aforementioned verse gets slightly modified to: “To forget is human; to remember is divine”.
The above verse bears testimony to the fact that the idea of amnesia is fundamental to Indian religion. Moreover amnesia at an innate level is human.
Memory is considered a great virtue and better memory is largely related to success, understanding and intellect. We have books and tutorial classes teaching how to remember and “win friends and impress people”. Memory is thus considered a very crucial component of accomplishment in academia, business, polity and all conventional walks of life. The ability to forget however is also an important virtue and if nature were not generous enough in endowing us with it we would have had a completely different life on this planet.
Amnesia is generally of two types:
1. Antero-grade amnesia - inability to remember events beginning with the onset of the injury; essentially, severely decreased ability to learn.
2. Retrograde amnesia - loss of memory for events preceding the injury.
What we consider amnesia in this essay would be primarily retrograde amnesia.

Dr Ganesh Devy tried to give a historical explanation to the crisis in Indian Literary tradition. He observed that there existed a void in our intellectual recollection of our medieval times and he tried to fathom the underlying reasons for the same. He observed that though India had large number of culturally rich languages, there was a marked absence of literary criticism in the prevalent languages. It is quite ludicrous that languages, which had been into existence since early thirteenth century and have produced quality works in literature, had not developed literary criticism even in the crudest forms. The impact of colonialism brings with itself a new image and new eye of looking at one self and cultural amnesia.

Our acceptance of west, as our rulers has created psychological frameworks, which have led us to believe that West is superior to East. Colonial experience thus produces a tendency in colonized, which tries to ape the colonizer and win their approval. Certain sections of society are better at embracing this change and this in Indian context can be explained by rise of Pareses of Bombay, Brahmins of Pune and Bhadralok of Calcutta who heartily embraced foreign education and rose to higher echelons within the British Government. This also gave rise to Nationalistic sentiments against the colonizer and thus colonization as a process creates turbulence in every cultural system. Under influence of the aforementioned the Classical India became glorious and modern India progressive and the intermediate a period of continuous vulgarization (Dark Age).


Regrettably all these turned into a historiographical convention and is now accepted as the undisputed principle of Indian history. Devy argues that such misleading historiography will lead to bogus theories explaining Indian literary position.

Ancient Indian Heritage:
Sanskrit as a language had an illustrious past of great literary scholars and grammarians and this period extended right from Vyas 4 BC to Bhoj 11 AD. This tradition of creative literature helped Sanskrit in becoming an extremely sophisticated system of literary thought. Sanskrit had a glorious tradition of scholars commenting on language, linguistics, metrics, style, diction, drama, dance, theatre, metaphor, symbol and diction, genre and sociology of literature and so on. These theories were incorporated in the Indian educational system and taught y scholars and brooded upon by scholars.

A scholar named Rajshekhar had identified nine elements criticism in his Kavyamimsa
1. Sutra – idea in prose
2. Karika – idea in verse
3. Vyakhya - elucidation
4. Vritti - illustration
5. Bhasya - commentary
6. Tika - assessment
7. Mimsa - analysis
8. Samiksha - review
9. Sastra – theory of literature related to other field of knowledge.

Which shows how deep and sophisticated were then prevalent literary tradtions.

Islamic Invasion:
Other languages based on Sanskrit had the benefit of inheriting the rich literary tradition of Sanskrit. The emergence of bhasa tradition in India coincided with the Islamic invasion. This also helped in further enriching the bhasa tradition bringing with it new styles of prose, poetry. The rise of shayri and Khusros devotional style of poetry are living testimonies to this fact.

The British Period:
The rise of British in eighteenth century furthered the cultural and political interference in the social fabric. The British decided that it was their historic duty to educate India though it was based on the odd idea of civilizing the less civilized race. With this came the introduction of English language in Indian education scenario. A striking mention here is that at that point no university in Europe considered English fit for academic discourse.

The introduction of English education brought with it new concepts like sovereignty, liberty and they found their way into Indian literary sensibility. The violent intrusion of alien literary pressure brought with itself a cultural amnesia which made an average Indian incapable of tracing his tradition backwards beyond mid-nineteenth century. Colonialism created cultural demoralization and false sense of shame in the minds of colonized about their own history and traditions. It must be noted that the aim of British was not to educate Indians to become their cultural equals. It was just to make Indians them useful to the empire.

The crisis can be explained by the picture:

Sanskrit Theories --------------------------------------------------------à Western Theory

Several distinguished Indian scholars have commented and tried to understand this phenomenon. Ashis Nandy has elucidated it using the man woman relationship where the colonized or the woman tries to imitate man and ends up becoming neither (androgynous). In harbouring the illusion of access to the western thought the Indian intellectual seeks to endorse his self image by the colonial rule, and, thereby chooses self deception. The renowned play Abhigyan Shakuntalam by Kalidasa provides an effective metaphor to understand this. The Sankuntala (colonized) who is secretly married to Dusyanta (colonizer) is not taken back to Dusyanta’s abode and when Sakuntala turn up at his palace Dusynata fails to recognize her and she fails to prove her identity. Thus Sakuntala is neither accepted by her husband nor by her foster father. This alludes to the colonial nature of encounter between colonizer and colonized and loss of memory of colonized.


The Indian critic feels a false emotional proximity to western and Sanskrit ideas while he tends to repress the bhasa tradition to repress the colonial side to colonial side of colonial experience. We need to note that western influence came with the colonizing British and prior to that India was alien to the western ideas. Thus western ideas can be seen as an external bud grafted on the Indian literary fabric. The bhasas on the other hand have developed from Sanskrit language and thus have assimilated Indian culture and traditions . The bhasa tradition must be seen in the same cultural continuity ignoring these would oddly fragment Indian culture and falsely dichotomize the great Indian literary tradition.

The current affiliation of cultural amnesia is compounded by the traditional Indian anxiety over the loss of memory. It is of course idle to speculate if amnesia has been a constant malaise of Indian psyche. It would be also idle to speculate if the longevity of Indian culture (parampara) has any direct connection with the anxiety. The most interesting example is the method of learning rote (oral tradition of India) which is still used in this age of printing technology. The Indian obsession with committing things to memory and considering memory sacred is well known ( smriti is another name of upnishads). Indians have considered memory as power which is independent of intelligence. The two components of learning are regarded as

Medha ---- Intellect
Smiriti------- Memory

In Changodaya Upnishad memory is described as a revereable faculty which is fundamental to human existence. It is said that memory allows one to think, reason, recognize. Coomaraswamy the veteran Indian thinker argues that memory is kind of latent knowledge and that by implication amnesia is a given condition of human mind. His explanation of amnesia is that memory transcends space and time and while entering this life soul enters these limits and loses memory. The argument is based on the metaphysical assumption of an all knowing soul or self or Purusa as being a priori reality. Memory and Amnesia is Commaraswamy’s opinion become symbolic interpretations of ‘an omniscient self’, and ‘the contingent ego’ respectively. The contingent ego must which is human go must learn as a child to.

One of the finest western thinkers in the area of psychoanalysis and amnesia was Sigmund Freud. Freud's first hypothesis was that the largest part of our mental lives consists of processes–thoughts, wishes, impulses, ideas, desires, images, and associations–that are unconscious. When we examine consciousness, it turns out to be full of discontinuities, inconsistencies, and gaps. The key to a successful treatment is the recovery of blocked memory. In fact the kind of illness with which Freud is concerned can be defined in terms of a selective blockage and leakage of memory. In the course of a person's development, certain forbidden desires and traumatic experiences become sealed off from conscious awareness, but leak through in the form of painful symptoms. Suppressed by the conscious part of the mind, they come back to haunt the body: this is what Freud calls the return of the repressed. "Psychoanalysis is a technique that allows dark meanings and irrational motivations to rise to the surface of conscious awareness. They can then be taken into account; they can be influenced by other considerations; and they become less liable to disrupt human life in violent and incomprehensible ways" (Jonathan Lear).

Freud notion of amnesia was that early childhood memories, particularly sexual ones, were too frightening and distasteful to the child to be preserved as such. Instead these emotional early memories required filtering from conscious awareness, and so took the form of more innocuous and seemingly inconsequential "screen memories". A major difficulty that arises in considering Freud's account, as a complete analysis of the phenomenon is that not all reported early memories are emotionally neutral or concerned with trivialities. Memories of troubling experiences from early childhood appear to be no less common than negative memories from adulthood. In their excellent review articles Pillemer and White (1989, White and Pillemer, 1979) point out that in this, as in many things, Freud was multi-voiced. In addition to his 'screen' or 'blockade' model he also proposed a 'selective reconstruction' model. The general premise of this 'selective reconstruction' model was that the inaccessibility of early childhood memories was due to a disjunction between the earliest and later modes of processing information. Modern theoretical accounts of infantile amnesia are more in line with the selective reconstruction than the blockade model.

Amnesia is related to as understood by experimental psychology to violent unconscious repression of memory. In his Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Sigmund Freud claims that there exists a definite relationship between the loss of memory and the nature of memory lost. This relationship can be merely superficial or complicated and profound. On the basis of this relationship Freud presents the typology of what he calls the concealment of memory.

To quote Freud:

I particularly emphasized a peculiarity in the temporal relation between concealing memory and the contents of memory concealed by it The context of concealing memory in that example belonged to the first years of childhood while the thoughts represented by it, which remained practically unconscious, belonged to a later period of the individual in question. I called this form of displacement a retro active or regressive one. Perhaps more often one finds the reverse relation that is an indifferent impression of the most remote period becomes a concealing memory in consciousness which simply owes its existence to an association with an earlier experience against whose direct reproduction there is resistances. We would call these encroaching or interposing concealing memories. What most concerns the memory lies here chronologically beyond the concealing memory.

Freud’s concept can be used in cultural context. The idea of concealing memory can be extended to mean that cultural amnesia is an inevitable consequence of colonialism. It is caused when dominant culture or its constituent features are branded inferior by a dominating culture and are accepted as being such by the subject culture. If this amnesia destroys the native perception of the immediate past it also helps as a strategy to preserve the self respect of the dominating culture as well as to win approval from the dominating culture.

In the words on MN Srinivas: In India westernization has brought with it a regressive tendency of Sanskritization in the sense of reviving a distant past and representing the immediate past.

1 comment:

TheQuark said...
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